By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
Looking back at the Colorado Rapids 2015 season is a task that should only be done only under duress. A second year under coach Pablo Mastroeni and the late addition of Kevin Doyle and Marcelo Sarvas had supporters cautiously optimistic about the season. Instead, the 37 points they earned in the regular season was worst in the Western Conference and tied them with NYCFC and Philadelphia as 2nd worst in MLS last season.
The new additions underwhelmed, but blame for the failed season doesn’t fall squarely on them. The team never really threatened to be a contender in the Western Conference, and the front office continues to confound. But that doesn’t mean the organization isn’t changing things. Though rumors they were looking to sign USMNT players Alejandro Bedoya and Tim Howard ultimately fell through (2/27/2016 Eds. note: it happened!) , there has still been plenty of change. As of this writing, nine new players have been added or resigned in 2016, while 13 players have been sold or let go. A newer, younger, philosophical style is being implemented. Whether it will be successful is still hard to determine.
Nearly the entire defense from 2015 is gone. Of the 11,026 minutes played by Colorado defenders in last season, only 5,570 return. With a season that finished as poorly as it did, you would normally assume this is a good thing. But the Colorado defense was actually one of the stingiest in MLS last season, allowing only 43 goals against, tied for 6th best in the league. While the more telling numbers such as their 1.14 xGA and 12.03 shots against per game are more mediocre, they’re still better than half the league.
In other words, there are plenty of holes to fill. Veterans James Riley (1430 minutes played) and Drew Moor (1980 mins) had their options declined. Michael Harrington (1260 mins) had his contract end and was not resigned and Maynor Figueroa (900 mins) was traded to Dallas. That means half of the defending minutes will have to come from somewhere else in 2016.
That starts with Eric Miller, who was brought in from Montreal in exchange for the Rapids’ 2018 first round SuperDraft pick, and will try to fill the hole left by the departure of Riley. Miller can play at either outside back position and while he found himself on the bench much of last year, he still played 2163 minutes for Montreal over the last two seasons. Miller was also called up to Jurgen Kinsmann’s January camp, and given the lack of stability the USMNT has had at RB, he has the opportunity to prove himself on multiple fronts. SuperDraft pick Dennis Castillo has also gotten plenty of minutes in preseason, so may also fight for that starting spot.
Veteran MLS centerback Bobby Burling returns for his second season with the club, and while he started 22 games last season, Mastroeni will hope to only need to use him as a depth option in 2016. Irish international Sean St. Ledger became an instant-starter at centerback after signing last August following his dismissal from OCSC, and will look to pick-up where he left off from his solid finish to the season.
Swede Axel Sjöberg was the 14th pick in the 2015 SuperDraft and earned himself an inconsistent place on the squad, filling in when needed. Still, he appeared to overtake Burling as the other CB starter at the end of the season, and given Burling's age, is probably the favorite to resume that role for 2016.
Newcomer Mekeil Williams, who arrives from Antigua GFC in Guatemala, is the probable starter on the left side of defense. He’s an international from Trinidad and Tobago who is being given the opportunity to make the position his for years to come.
Anchoring the defense with be goalkeeper Zach MacMath. Considering he’s been in the league for five years now, it’s hard to believe he’s only 24. After riding the bench in Colorado as a loanee from Philadelphia for all of 2015, MacMath was given his shot in the final three games of the season, overtaking Clint Irwin as the starter. With Irwin traded to Toronto and MacMath’s loan turned into a permanent move, Colorado (after claiming they were in talks with Tim Howard) have expressed their commitment to their new starter. While goalkeeper xGA aren’t foolproof measures of success, MacMath’s have consistently hovered around average for an MLS goalkeeper. The Rapids will hope a secure starting job gives him the confidence to improve.
While the changes in the defense have been significant, the turnover in the midfield may have an even bigger impact on the Rapids’ success in 2016. Gone are starters Vincente Sanchez and Lucas Pittinari. Longtime Rapid Nick LaBrocca had his option declined. Designated Player Juan Ramirez has been loaned out to Almeria for six months. Marcelo Sarvas was traded to DC United. That is a huge portion of the midfield corps. Indeed, those players accounted for over half of the minutes played in the midfield last season (notice a trend?).
It wasn’t a terrible midfield corps, either. Colorado controlled 50% of the possession in their games, and of the Rapids passes last season, 27% came in the final 3rd, good for fourth best in MLS. Returning are the Dillons – Serna and Powers – who will be relied on as the experienced core of the fresh midfield. Dillon Powers especially will be an important part of the midfield in the coming season, and he’s been in top form in the preseason. Alongside Powers will be Sam Cronin, who had a solid if unspectacular first season with the club.
To fill the holes created by so many departures, Colorado traded for Union homegrown player Zach Pfeffer, Marco Pappa was brought in from Seattle, and Micheal Azira was picked up in the waiver draft. Pfeffer is a promising young prospect, but is unlikely to be an instant contributor. Pappa, while it feels like he’s been around forever, is only 28 and will be counted on to create offense and provide deadly set-piece deliveries. If he can get past his personal issues, he could be the biggest unsung addition of the offseason. Azira will bring depth off the bench.
By far the weakest link last season was the offense. The 33 goals they scored last season were five fewer than the 2nd worst team, and the advanced stats suggest the attack was probably as bad as it seemed. While they had an above average TSR – (shots for divided by the sum of shots for + shots against) at 0.504– the quality of the shots they took were poor, which is why Colorado’s xGF was 1.00 per game, worst in the league.
Most of the offseason change for the forwards has come in the form of subtraction. Expected goals darling Deshorn Brown (he finished in the top 10 in xG in 2013 and 2014) was sold to a Norwegian club last March. First DP in club history Gabby Torres has returned to Panama after a tumultuous couple of seasons. Youngster Charles Elondou, who made 22 appearances over the last two seasons, had his option declined.
Striker DP Kevin Doyle joined the team last May from Wolverhampton and notched a respectable five goals and two assists in 20 games last season. He’s joined this year by heralded new DP signing Shkelzen Gashi, who has won the golden boot in Switzerland for FC Basel the last two seasons. The tandem of Doyle and Gashi will be relied on to get most of the team’s goals, and it is probable that the Rapids’ success will depend on their effectiveness together.
It’s unlikely that 2016 ends as badly as 2015, but not impossible. Club legend Mastroeni enters the season in the biggest hotseat of MLS coaches. If there isn’t improvement by May, expect to see him gone. If they do improve, it will probably to fall on the shoulders of Gashi and Doyle finding the net. Colorado needs to find a way to get goals, and this is the first time they’ve had proven scorers for a full season since Conor Casey left town. If Gashi adapts quickly to MLS, the revamped defense can replicate its 2015 form, and Powers and Pappa can stay healthy, this team could finish in the top-half of the table. If all the new additions take time to develop chemistry and the goals don’t come, Commerce City could be in for another very long season.